“Designer Shopping”: The development of the department store in nineteenth century Sheffield

by Jo Lintonbon

Our material world

The everyday places of shopping that we as consumers take for granted – imbrued with images of advertising and organised about the social relations of customer and retailer – play a large part in our urban spatial experience and culture. They are places where we interact materially and socially; spaces where we exchange. Both high street and marketplace have traditionally been arenas for the purchase of goods, and the varying social and architectural guises of exchange have historically brought much influence to bear on the cityscape. Comprising the mainstay of much of the city centre, shops and commercial premises still provide the spatial structure to a key public component of the city – its streets.

The streetscape makes a powerful contribution to urban identity and in its spatial continuity provides strong links with the past. Many of the principal thoroughfares of Sheffield city centre retain the memory of an earlier town: long-vanished street facades have been replaced with the building of intervening years but an underlying street pattern remains intact. This continuity in structure and spatial geography offers up a shared identity for generations of inhabitants through knowledge of a place. In persistent public use, the streets are perceptibly, if not always legally, in common ownership and although the built environment is forever in flux and the spaces we inhabit continually transformed, the physical make up of the street implies a reassuring permanence.

Likewise, in the ways that we take ownership and identify with them, shops are perceived as an extension of the public realm and they are equally identifiable to non-shoppers and shoppers alike. We cross their thresholds and make use of shop interiors to physically traverse the city, but do not necessarily make a purchase when we enter. For anyone not excluded from the centre, shops form part of the spatial and mnemonic make-up of a place. They are used to navigate the city and as cultural and social identifiers and consequently have a material impact on both the physical and social aspects of urban life. In this respect they are like many other public and private institutions.

Nevertheless shops are the spaces of private business and are identifiably owned. They engage with the public realm for self-interest: contributing to the streetscape visually in their advertising, display and showmanship. Their interiors are carefully organised to promote their wares and to facilitate their business practices and this organisation principle extends beyond the shop floor to the various facets of business that comprise retailing. Shops are not ‘neutral’ spaces and this is also true historically.

Because we can define a shop as both the physical premises and as the business that occupies these premises, the relationship between the space and the practice is significant. Shops are designed and their architectural content reflects the economic and retail practices prevalent at their time of making. Their form influences the built environment and changes in economic and retail practices continue to have a social-spatial impact on the places that we inhabit as new building types develop. Moreover, retailing is fundamentally a temporal activity. The exchange of goods for money implies a rate of turnover in things material – of goods and of the settings in which goods are proffered for sale. Retailing is economically driven, highly competitive and has an expedient approach to its use of buildings: these are not monuments but work-horses. Where novelty and ‘newness’ is the standard currency, the spaces with which we are familiar are endlessly remodelled to suit updated business practices, creating contemporary sales environments even while the building shell remains intact. This is a subtle form of urban renewal, near indiscernible in the short term but cumulatively significant over time, as the operation of the high street transforms within a seemingly familiar built fabric and in turn the built fabric is transformed.

We inevitably traverse an urban environment shaped by the social and economic processes of the past. While a material interrogation of this environment can reveal a hidden history of forgotten lives and buildings, equally an understanding of the transformative power of the processes that shaped those lives and buildings can illuminate the contemporary cityscape and our interpretations of it. Retailing histories provide a narrative backdrop to the physical transformation of high streets in most towns and cities in Britain, and in Sheffield the relationship between shop form and street renewal is evident in the late nineteenth century as new scales of retailing developed. Constrained by an existing domestic architecture, the high street became a battleground as shopkeepers competed for more street frontage and floor space. In a wave of new building from 1880 to 1900 the late nineteenth century provincial High Street was transformed as a new scale of retail architecture emerged, distinct from the previous pattern of principal shops that had lined Sheffield’s central streets. Enabled by the spatial restructuring of the city’s main thoroughfares in response to increased traffic congestion, the new High Street clearly reflected changes in both social and economic practices – in the ways that goods were bought and the ways in which goods were sold.

A world of goods

Preceding improvements in production and distribution had enabled readier access to a world of goods, while an evolving ‘commodity culture’ supplied the shopkeeper with a willing shopping public. Retailing has historically witnessed step changes in types, scales and forms of shop-keeping and retail historians have observed a number of key changes in the organisation of the shop trades during the reign of Victoria.1 While the early nineteenth century remained similar to the eighteenth, the impact of industrialisation influenced the development of shops occupying sites in the city centre. Industrialisation and urbanisation altered the identity of the consumer and the parameters of their expenditure. Objects for the person and the home became more accessible as the century progressed and an explosion of new machine-made products, increases in the variety of goods to choose from, and the excitement of novel foreign goods brought in from the Empire, encouraged a culture of consumption.2


While the price of some garments still equated to annual income for many, around the eighteen-fifties, volume sales emerged in the drapery and grocery trades, with smaller-scale production of a variety of cloths and printed goods, sewn articles and accessories.3 The rise of cotton manufacture altered English dress as levels of cloth production stimulated new fashions, and with an increasing number of voluminous garments required to clothe the fashionable woman, dressmaking and tailoring skills were cheapened through domestic machined sewing and mail order dress patterns.4 Fashion and social dress codes expanded the number and range of items for the wardrobe and at the lower end of the market ready-to-wear garments developed steadily from the 1840s onwards.5 Whereas drapery shops had traditionally sold only the cloth to be made into garments, some clothing items became available as off-the-peg purchases and although more complicated clothing were bespoke many items could easily be half-machined, arriving in the shop semi-processed before hand finishing to the customer’s taste – an opportunity for retailers to expand either into larger scale production or to take over the traditional role of the tailor.6

Although the market for these new goods was not the mass market of the twentieth century, shops witnessed unprecedented growth, not just in number but also in size. Competition was manifest in advertisements and promotions and retailers strove to develop strategies to court custom and maintain economic momentum. This creation of desire was as much a part of the economic transformation of the nineteenth century as the straightforward production of goods. A tradition of advertisements, present throughout the history of printed popular media, did not in itself account for rises in consumption across the century: increased spending power and the relative affluence of the middle classes in relation to the cost of goods were the direct causes of this growth. However, media presentation and the marketing of commodities produced a pervasive culture of objects and novelties, extending the parameters of consumption in terms of social values and expectations.


Away from the shop counter, material changes in transportation and industrial production, altered the structures of distribution. Remembering Sheffield in the 1830s before the arrival of a more efficient means of communication and transport, one contributor to Leader’s Reminiscences of Sheffield observed in 1874 that ‘without railways and penny postage, the business of to-day could not be carried on’.7 Transport in and out of the town was limited and Sheffield Canal, opened in 1819, offered the only alternative to transporting freight by road. Postage was expensive – 12d for a 300-mile distance – but was still the fastest method of communication.8 The conduct of business was restricted in pace and in scale, and according to G C Holland, local merchants and manufacturers were ‘not men of large capital, exercising immense influence. They are far from trading on the heels of aristocracy… consequently we perceive less misery, destitution and ignorance among the artisans, and also less of the other extreme – opulence and extravagances’.9

The coming of both railway and telegraph, influenced commercial relationships in the town increasing the speed and reliability of the dispatch of goods, making stock selection and handling simpler for the shopkeeper. Offsetting financial risk by reducing the need to keep large stocks, quick carriage enabled the freeing up of capital for other purposes, for example, increasing the variety of stock proffered. The railway also made commercial travel easier, and sample selling via agents increased the opportunity for direct negotiations with manufacturers. Locally and nationally new distribution roles were created, older methods diminished or became more specialised, new markets were cornered, and competition was rife. Principal town retailers became less inclined to combine wholesaling and retailing, and specialisations in the trade lengthened the chains of the distribution network. Distribution speeded up, as did the flow of goods arriving in retail premises and destined for the customer’s home.


In the growing national proclivity to consumption, not only did the overall number of shops increase: some businesses made sufficient capital gains to enlarge their turnover, premises and number of employees. Progressive shopkeepers, embracing new retail techniques, were able to capitalise on new openings in the market place, establishing a new class of retailer or ‘shopocracy’.10 As retail businesses matured at different rates, the High Street diversified, resulting in a range of building types accommodating a variety of shops and shopping experiences.

One strategy employed by the mid nineteenth century retailer, especially in the drapery trades, was to departmentalise their business, adding new lines to the shop floor and benefiting from economies in increased buying power and the attraction for customers of finding many related goods conveniently within one shop. Departmentalisation had obvious spatial implications because of the need for additional display space and the requirements of handling and storing large quantities of goods. The sheer growth in size of individual businesses and the number of people each employed also made demands on building infrastructure, and informed the development of a building type: the purpose-built department store. Spatially distinct from many shops that traditionally inhabited parts of more complicated urban buildings, the department store made legible its architectural programme in the volume of the building.

John Walsh

Representing the formalisation of an organic growth in economic and organisational retail practices and evolving from small scale origins, the department store is better understood tracing the transitional experience of shops on the High Street that coincided with the adoption of new scales of retailing. In Sheffield this is made possible through a case study of one retailer, John Walsh. In contesting the compulsory purchase of part of his shop premises prior to road widening, and the subsequent architectural commission for a new building for his business, he has left a detailed spatial record of his shops. This is a forgotten history of Sheffield in that particular shopping and social practices are distinct to their time and records of the everyday are hard to come by. Limited business records remain and documented memories of individual shoppers are rare. For Walsh’s, the material evidence in building form has doubly disappeared: the transitory settings of display are ill-remembered and the original purpose-built building was destroyed during the Second World War and new premises constructed on the same plot. The independent department store business subsequently became part of a department store chain.

Nevertheless, tracing the various premises John Walsh occupied and commissioned on the High Street in Sheffield, we can analyse the changing relationship between retailing practices and shop accommodation, and demonstrate the extent to which the form and structure of the street developed as a consequence. The practical management of his large business greatly informed the design requirements of his new store, yet the store itself transcended these practical expectations, so that within the early twentieth century the building was intrinsic to the continued success of a more sophisticated interpretation of his departmentalised business. The iconic status of the building did not preclude its continual internal adaptation and its history as a setting for a material world of goods represents in microcosm the ongoing cycle of retail renewal within the contemporary High Street.

The geographic context

Famed as a centre for steel production and for its extensive cutlery and edge tool trades, Sheffield had a population of just over 401,000 in 1900. Established as a market town, by the mid-nineteenth century the pressures exerted upon its urban infrastructure were intense. Local census returns show the growth of population, increasing from 35,849 in 1811 to 59,011 in 1831 and again to 83,447 in 1851.11 Population comparisons from the preceding century, of 12,001 in 1755 and 25,141 in 1788, indicate the spatial implications. The sporadic town maps before the first Ordnance Survey of 1851 record a more gradual expansion, first to the south and northwest in the late eighteenth century – the Norfolk Estate and Moorfields; and later breaching the natural barriers of the Sheaf and Don, creating spurs to the north-east and the east – the Wicker and Sheffield Park. By 1851, the town (newly incorporated as a Borough in 1843) had almost quadrupled in size from its 1797 form.

Despite the enormity of these changes, spatially Sheffield’s town centre changed remarkably little. The town trustees had spent some £5382 on street widening and improvements in the years 1813 to 1837, but the central street pattern (barring minor alterations) remained unchanged. Focused on a small number of streets, the commercial centre comprised essentially a single route through the city centre taking in Angel Street, the ancient marketplace, High Street, Fargate and Pinstone Street and these main shopping streets were subject to a seemingly ever-increasing volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.12

The location of many of the city’s principal shops, this route, shown in the Ordnance Survey of 1902, clearly exhibited a variety of shop buildings ranging in size from the large block departmentalised store to small single shop units, and most buildings were at least four storeys tall. The city could claim at least four contenders for the title of department store. Fifty years earlier, the Ordnance Survey of 1851 depicts a different High Street, narrower and more uniform in the size and density of shops lining the street. Plots, more obviously domestic in scale and organisation, were characteristically long and thin, with commercial uses on the street giving way to a mixture of industrial workshops, stabling and meaner housing behind. (Figure 1) This was the urban context within which departmentalisation first occurred, contained by a local shopping geography that saw little enlargement and in a period in which the population tripled in size.

Figure 1. Extract from Ordnance Survey Plan 1851.

While localised shops developed to serve local communities, and the town’s arterial routes (Broad Lane, West Street, South Street and the Wicker) were lined with shops, these were not the primary sites of consumption. Competition was therefore fierce among retailers as business potential increased in the area of principal retailing concentrated about High Street, Marketplace, Angel Street and Fargate. The restriction of citywide shopping to a few principal streets has been observed in other towns and retailers wishing to expand struggled to acquire sufficient property in the right location.13 Retail accommodation developed expediently and the desire for street frontage privileged sideways rather than backward or upward growth. Once the full potential of existing sites had been used, larger shops could be created only at the expense of small shopkeepers. This was clearly the case for John Walsh’s business whose shops and their sequential development are well documented thanks to the arbitration hearing held in 1895 over compensation for relinquishment of his leasehold to Sheffield Corporation on account of the road-widening programme. Plans were drawn of Walsh’s premises on the south side of High Street, and testimonies were taken in order to settle the dispute and from these we can chart the scale of growth and organisation of the business and his premises.

Assembling a property portfolio

John Walsh was a phenomenally successful retailer in late nineteenth century Sheffield. His initial business was humble – a small rented shop-dwelling on High Street selling baby linen, lace and muslin, with four employees including himself and his wife – but in two decades his turnover was to increase 26 times, from £5000 to £129,000, and in 1895 he occupied in total twelve shops on both sides of the street.14 A business success, his net profit reached £8000 annually (compared to a semi-skilled worker’s wage of between £50 and £110).15 He had previously worked for nine years as a department buyer of baby linen, lace, underclothing and ladies’ costumes at Sheffield’s leading departmentalised shop, Cockaynes in Angel Street, where he experienced firsthand the new systems and practices developed to accommodate growing business complexity, before setting up in his own right in 1875 at 39 High Street.16 The shop comprised only the ground floor for sales and cellar for storage, and until 1879, Walsh, his wife and four children lived on the premises, occupying ground floor quarters behind the shop and part of the upper floors. (Figure 2) This was a fragile venture – the lease ran for only one year -and in it he invested a capital of £1200, presumably his life savings.17

With little control over the appearance of the rented premises, his business relied less upon the creation of an exclusive ambience and more upon the effective use of available floor space. That he relied on profit from mark-ups on volume sales is clear from his initial newspaper advert, timed for the opening of his first premises. It describes a limited range of goods at discounted prices:

‘His large and varied experience as a keen buyer will enable him to submit to his Customers, at all times, Large and Choice Parcels of Rich Fashionable Goods, at such Prices as can not fail to be appreciated. SEVERAL LOTS which he has been purchasing AT CLEARANCE PRICES during the past three weeks (being the end of the wholesale season) WILL BE OFFERED THIS DAY at nominal prices.’18

With a briskly changing display and a policy of judiciously undercutting his rivals to draw in the bargain hunters, the small and irregularly-shaped shop provided an adequate base from which to expand his business, and was immediately successful. His aim was for a particular class of respectable business – a cost-conscious but discerning middle class – interested in quality products, mostly clothing accessories. He offered both cash and credit sales, a business practice that contrasted with many budget-end retail shops that operated strict cash-only payment policies. His records from 1895 reveal book debts of £8000, a consequence of the large proportion of sales conducted by credit.19 Efficient use of space and high levels of visibility were important to encourage the sale of goods that would not be available for long, and profit was made by regularly recycling his initial investment over the course of the year. To increase business he was also a prolific advertiser and by 1895 was spending £2100 annually, including newspaper coverage and billboards on the local train lines.20

Figure 2. 35-47 High Street in 1862 (redrawn from Local
Studies Library S(20) 2L).

Business growth

Walsh’s capital investment, purchasing power and need for a larger sales floor rapidly grew. To maintain sales momentum, he repeated the example of his contemporaries by expanding the range of departments in the business and seeking additional premises. In 1879 the first structural changes were made to 39 High Street with an extension to the rear accommodating a millinery department and enlarging the ladies’ outfitting department. This proved a temporary measure, for in the following year space was problem enough for Walsh to rent premises on the opposite side at 58 High Street, into which he transferred the millinery department. With a combined rent of £290 per annum, he now employed five men and nineteen women, and sales figures showed a £12,000 annual turnover, equivalent to a growth in sales of just under 20% a year.21

Figure 3. 54 High Street in 1829 (redrawn from Sheffield Archive
Fairbanks Collection SheS 580S).

New departments were tested for profitability and each operated practically as an independent business and not as a loss leader for the larger shop. These were periodically relocated as the sales floor grew. More floor space was added in 1883 when the lease for 37 High Street, next door to the original premises, was acquired. In 1886 45-47 High Street was secured and in 1886 Walsh tripled his floor space on the opposite side of the street, taking possession of numbers 54 and 56. He was now effectively running three discrete shops with related departments, all within sight of one another, as he played a competitive game, negotiating for premises as they came available at a suitable price.

At this time the south side of the street was less favoured as a retail location – the property was older and in poorer condition and had changed little in the course of the century. No. 54 High Street can be dated to at least 1829. With a shop, kitchen and warehouse in the block fronting High Street, much of the property fronted onto Prior Court, a passageway and thoroughfare containing numerous houses and workshops that ran past the adjacent premises, Clarence Hotel, an ancient inn with a newly built facade. 56 High Street mirrored the adjacent shop, no.58, the Bon Marché, the unsuccessful venture of another former Cockayne’s employee who, in contrast with Walsh, failed within a year. Its stone built premises comprised three-storeys with a four-arched window extending the length of the frontage at first floor and a corresponding plate glass shop front and entry below. Conditions on the north side of the street were also far from ideal. The shops were similarly small-scale four-storey domestic premises little suited for the requirements of a single large-scale business.

All Walsh’s shops, previously held in multiple tenancies, belonged to one landowner, and between 1886 and 1892 Walsh continued his leasehold acquisitions from her, obtaining first 41 and 43 High Street and completing a run of shops on the north side, and then nos. 60 and 62 on the south, including additional back premises.22 Renegotiating his leasehold term to 14 years, Walsh was able to substantially alter the individual shops to better suit his business requirements. He also purchased the freehold of 64 High Street in 1894 and built on land in Trippet Lane for stabling, storage for carts and vans, and for warehousing and indicating the insufficient available space in High Street, records show that he was also leasing 19 rooms in Fargate, in the Great Northern Chambers as accommodation for a number of his female live-in assistants.23

The expediency of retailing

By 1895, when Walsh was served the ‘notice to treat’ by the Corporation he occupied two continuous tranches of property on either side of the High Street with a combined annual rent of £2060. The facing shops were in a prime city position and Walsh was loath to relinquish the advantages that he had created. He had carried out extensive alterations, transforming the several discrete shops on each side into single premises (in plan and section, if not in elevation), involving an outlay claimed at between £10,000 and 12,000. To compensate for the impending loss, Walsh demanded £66,248.24

Figure 4. Walsh’s premises on south side of High Street: Ground floor plan (redrawn from Local Studies Library S(20) 5-10L arbitration hearing survey)

Figure 5. Walsh’s premises: First floor plan.

On the north side, Walsh’s shop was complicated spatially because part of his leased property was shared with the inn at 35 High Street. Rooms, passageways and stairs over 37-39 High Street belonged to the hotel as well as some of the upper storeys of 41 High Street, but this had not stopped John Walsh substantially altering the premises, and he eventually rebuilt the site. The Goad Fire Insurance Plans of 1896 show that internal alterations had been made to the existing building: openings were knocked through the party walls and glazed roof-lighting inserted.25 Walsh had also fitted out a kitchen and dining-room capable of feeding 300 staff.26 The plan of the south side of High Street premises in 1895 shows that he had carried out extensive alterations in transforming the several discrete shops into one large shop, involving an outlay of between £10,000 and £12,000. Many of the internal walls were removed as each property was acquired, creating at ground floor an extensive shop with a frontage of over 100ft and a depth of about 190ft.27 (Figures 4,5 & 6)

Walsh had completed his most recent reorganisation in February 1895 with a rearrangement of his departments. With the larger sales area, premises on the south side of the street now boasted the lion’s share of departments, housing 23 out of a total of 36, and these constituted 65% of the combined store’s turnover.28 The department layout was rearranged thematically in anticipation of customer shopping patterns. This was an art that Walsh prided himself in, as was made plain in the court proceedings when his barrister explained:

‘The departments had been arranged with care and discretion. The umpire would understand that the gentleman’s outfitting would not lead to the corsets – and at any rate it ought not to. On the other hand the corsets and baby linen might very well go together.’29

Figure 6. Walsh’s premises: Basement, second and third floor plans.

The shop premises

At ground floor, the shop comprised three discrete spaces: a long narrow shop, formerly 54 High Street, housing the glass and china departments; the main body of the shop, formerly 56-62 High Street, where the majority of departments were housed; and 64-66 High Street, the layout of which is not included in building plans. With street entrances into each space, the rooms were connected by openings in the party walls and the level changes accommodated by short flights of stairs, allowing customers to move freely throughout the premises.30

The shop was typical in its layout, with counters running the length of the spaces creating three main aisles in the central portion of the shop. Behind each counter ran a corresponding swathe of shelving in front of which the department assistants stood. To the rear of the shop, two departmental bays had been created (for baby linen and furnishing) and forward of these was a semi-enclosed area for corsetry and ladies’ boots. Along the left-hand aisle, the shopper passed dresses and artificial flowers, laces, ribbons and silks. The right-hand aisle comprised (from the rear) furnishings, prints, needlework, wools, trimmings, haberdashery, flannels and calicoes. Foreign fancies, hosiery and gloves were found in the middle aisle.

A new staircase, centrally placed at the front of the shop, led to a mezzanine level for a showroom and fitting rooms. This led in turn to a second enclosed showroom, the original first floor of 60-62 High Street. The shop frontage on High Street was dominated by window display areas, 3m deep, and with several entrances, two providing entry into 56-62 High Street and one into 54 High Street. This was the extent of the premises accessible to the public. Below ground were numerous interconnected cellars used for warehousing. The remainder of the first floor housed a workroom and store, and also a restaurant and adjacent facilities for the Clarence Hotel next door. Above the shop at second and third floor were workrooms, stores and a tearoom presumed to be for staff only.

Accommodating growth

Figure 7. Walsh’s premises: Sections.

Despite the seeming efficiency in the shop organisation, the premises remained spatially chaotic and expedient. It is clear that the shop had been systematically altered, and these building alterations represented a significant investment. Trade fittings in the shop alone were valued at £3500.31 The enlarged scale of departmental operations necessitated a new scale of uninterrupted floor space to encourage shopper’ accessibility to all parts of the business but the need to work within the parameters of the existing premises created an immediate programmatic conflict. There were three related areas of alteration. First, a reduction in the compartmentalisation of the existing shop premises, second, an expansion to the rear at ground floor level of the total sales area, and third, corresponding alterations to the shop fronts. The immediate solution was, where possible, to knock through separate premises into one large one, incorporating external spaces into the building envelope.

The inclusion of small outbuildings and the retention of the original room arrangements on upper floors dictated the careful insertion of numerous cast iron columns and girders. On the shop floor these resulted in an irregular structural grid, dominated by the non-orthogonal room layout of the original premises. No columns were allowed to impinge on the shop’s aisles, except in the china shop, but no matter how efficient the resulting circulation, this was a compromised solution and the shop could never be perceived as spatially coherent. This is clear from the treatment of its ceilings. Limited by existing floor to ceiling heights, the main shop floor was carried through at the level of the front, creating a sunken floor at the rear. The original first floor, retained as a mezzanine, created the lowest ceiling in the premises (9ft high), and elsewhere additional height was gained from glazed roofing of various profiles. These were located over the original external yards of the properties and confined by the irregular geometries into which they were sequentially inserted. (Figure 7) With such importance placed on display, there was nowhere in the 50m deep shop that was not sufficiently daylit. The glazed roofs flooded the goods with natural light, but their placement did not correspond with particular counters or circulation routes below. Effectively, the existing premises had been nibbled away as much as was structurally possible to gain sufficient space.32

The impact of working with the existing premises was noticeable from the street. While a unified shopfront across the entire width was impossible, alterations were made to the ground floor show windows, re-ordering the premises’ entrances and more than doubling the available window display by including a side street. These changes increased the visibility of the shop from the street and Walsh stated his preference for the south side site, partly due to the quality of northern light entering the premises but also because it required no shading and therefore little obstruction to the goods.33 Evidence from a separate arbitration hearing emphasised the importance of a well-appointed shop frontage for successful trade in Sheffield:

‘No-one could be insensible to the circumstance that this was a very serious matter indeed, as a first-class frontage was an enormous advantage. People carrying on the business of drapers in Sheffield had very fine fronts to their shops, and great efforts were made to get grand shop fronts in order to attract the public and to display their goods to the best advantage. The moment the frontage was reduced the draper was handicapped in the race to secure public favour, and the value of his property was diminished.’34

Ownership and expansion

Walsh may not have had an ideal building façade, but he did have the window space, the street position and the enviable reputation of being one of the best known businesses in the north of England.35 With a total capital of £38,000 in 1895, the south side had a turnover of £84,308 and a net profit of 9½%.36 The premises from which he traded were evidently an extremely useful asset. Several arbitration witnesses agreed that Walsh’s premises were economically, worth more than double the rental he was paying in 1895 because of the lettable floor area. Yet their accretive form and their lack of coherence, while not necessarily hampering the profitability of the business did little to complement its new scale.

His problem was one of tenancies, ownership and timing. He was happy to sink capital into short-term leaseholds in order to make sales space available on demand although this was unusual for a shop operating at the scale of Walsh’s and an expert witness told the hearing that there were no large rental shops of over £1500 in the city because all the large shops were freeholds.37 He had already experienced first-hand the problem of consolidating premises elsewhere. In 1889 he established a branch shop in Halifax – a general drapery – acquiring premises in a small way. However the business was not a success and he gave it up in 1893, citing failure for lack of space available for expansion. He supposed that having heard of his reputation in Sheffield each of the neighbours ‘wanted fabulous prices for their property’.38 He therefore stood to lose substantially if he contemplated removing from his favoured choice of site.

Described as a rabbit warren in which every inch was used, space requirements remained tight. The arbitration hearing was amused to hear about the shortage of sanitary provision on the premises; that the floor area was of such value as sales space that there was no room for water closets.39 With less than ideal storage space, inefficiencies were apparent in the servicing of the building. Exacerbated by the split site, the movement of stock was restricted by limited delivery areas (mainly the street) and because Walsh was allowed access only on foot and with wheelbarrows to the yard at the rear and then via a communicating gate to adjacent rented workshop space.40 His employee numbers had reached several hundred, including sales staff and workroom employees, and domestic accommodation and many secondary retail functions including stabling, storage and warehousing were off site.

While both business and store had been expanding rapidly, these deficiencies and a lack of architectural consolidation had not been addressed. But the combined issues of effective management of goods and people, and control on the sales floor necessitated a more efficient retail environment and Walsh, like many other retailers, recognised the economic advantages of architectural control in the organisation and presentation of premises. The problems that arose in running a large business from unsatisfactory building stock informed his decision to develop a more suitable purpose built premises.

Defining the building type

As a site of production as well as of consumption, and continuing the paternalist tradition of providing accommodation for shop assistants, the department store consisted of much more than the sales floor and its new scale of commodity display that both awed and horrified contemporary commentators.41 Departmentalisation alone did not bestow the title of department store on a large shop, and few in Sheffield made the transition from large shop to department store. The trend towards departmentalisation had existed in many of the larger furnishing and drapery shops in the town as they advertised a continual growth in the variety of their trades. More important was the organisational transition inherent in growth through product diversification, using novelty and short-term availability to increase sales.

In enlarging the volume of existing customers’ purchases and attracting new customers from a wider area, shops not only stocked a greater selection of goods than any individual draper: they went further in establishing new protocols in shop management and shopping behaviour. To encourage store permeability, to entice the shopper from one department to another, to visually excite and to permit browsing and touching without requiring a purchase, ran counter to earlier forms of English retailing. Required to stimulate stock turnover, each of these methods had spatial connotations. Furthermore, a new scale of operations inevitably meant that shops would outgrow their building infrastructure for handling goods and housing personnel. In short, the simple multiplication of departments led to requirements for an entirely new organisational structure encompassing both the business and its premises, resulting ultimately in a more self-conscious architecture.

Three issues predominated – first the need for a building that accommodated an increasingly complicated sales and distribution system, second the relationship between older traditions of domestic accommodation within the shop and a new impersonal and large, hierarchically structured labour force, and third, the spatial requirements needed on the sales floor and at the interface between store and street, to attractively display goods and draw in repeated custom.

Evolving business procedures

At nearby Cockaynes the sales process was documented in a detailed rulebook, and employees, each identified by number were fined if correct procedures concerning the movement of goods and money around the shop were not followed.42 Such systematisation was required to ensure the store’s smooth running, and rules extended to codes of conduct outside of shop hours. Organisationally, the growth in departments had changed the managerial structure of shops, displacing the traditional shop owner’s control away from now multiple points of sale and creating an intermediate management tier.43 The role of proprietor and other store-wide management was that of overseer and arbiter, steering the overall direction of the store, operating the centralised facilities that each department shared in common, and maintaining surveillance throughout.44

Because control was necessarily remote from the counter, the daily routine and process of transactions required a standardised methodology to enable accountability, both to discourage fraud and theft, and to maintain a high level of efficiency in an increasingly large workforce. Variety in payment method coupled with the number of transactions created a colossal flow of paper around the shop, documenting sales, making out receipts, bills and invoices and taking stock. Managerial responsibility centred on the control of this paper chain, to minimise mistakes and maximise profits.

Just as on the shop floor each semi-autonomous department relied on proximity to other departments to increase sales, so in the collective areas of the store, and in their effective communication, the department store had to operate efficiently. Centralisation occurred in terms of both space and personnel, affecting three areas: the handling of goods (receiving and dispatch rooms, porters and the parcel delivery service), the handling of money (the counting-house) and the smooth operation of the shop floor (floorwalkers to monitor staff, concierges to assist the public, and of course the store interior itself). Communication back to the centre from each department and each employee prevented the store from descending into chaos, enabling goods bought from different departments to be dispatched to the same customer, managing a variety of different payment methods and keeping up-to-date records of the all important profit and loss sheets. Maintaining business efficiency was therefore implicit in the spatial organisation of the department store, controlling the orderly flow of money, paper and goods about the premises as well as providing a shop floor that could be easily scrutinized and surveyed.

A tradition of paternalism

The institutionalisation of living-in facilities similarly had spatial implications. Whereas the boundaries between working and living were blurred in the daily life of the small shop, with apprentices sometimes sleeping under the counter at night, the emergence of vast departmentalised shops altered this relationship. Until 1893 John Walsh closed at 10.30pm on Saturdays and opened until 8.30pm on other nights with no half-day closing. After this date, the store closed at 9.30pm on Saturdays and 7.30 at all other times until 1916 when all-year-round six-o’clock opening was adopted.45 With an enforced code of conduct, large stores dominated the lives of those people who worked within them, and this was amplified for those who also lived in.46 The shopkeeper remained duty bound in his paternal role towards his employees and the shop comprised a substitute ‘family’ despite its escalation in size. The accommodation en masse of a large number of young, single and especially female staff in a mixed sex environment was increasingly perceived as a moral issue and generally stores were not only charged with the protection of their employees but became anxious to maintain their own image and reputation.47 The effective planning of domestic quarters above the shop floor, providing communal rooms and living accommodation therefore figured largely in the new building’s brief, ultimately affecting the scale and stature of the department store building in the composition of street facades and provision for clearly appointed separate entrances and segregated floors.48

Commodity display

Good practice in designing for commodity display required large floor areas that were economically efficient. The economics of departmentalisation – multiplying the range and selection of goods on display while relying on a high visibility, high turnover sales policy – pressured available retail floor space while diminishing the need for long periods of warehousing. Floor area of large stores vastly exceeded their retail predecessors. Using cost-effective basement and first floor space, it was important that every square yard of floor space could be used and that the shop layout would not impede the movement of shoppers or obstruct the work of assistants. Although shopkeepers manipulated consumer routes through their buildings with temporary displays of commodities to encouraging meandering rather than direct paths in and out of the store, at a structural level it was preferable to design as open a floor plan as possible.49

Visual continuity and a sense of the wider store could open up potentially less profitable areas of shop floor, distant from the street entrances. Economically, a deep plan department store was better than one that hugged the street, as it improved value for money over the entire square footage of land area. The same economic principle applied to building multiple shop floors. Natural lighting was important for the effective display of goods and to admit daylight into the heart of the building, top-lighting from glass roofs and atria was utilised. Light wells also aided the circulation of air. External building faces were not a reliable source of light, as shopfront window displays were orientated to the street and not connected back to the inside the store. Window requirements were simply to be as extensive and unobstructed as the structure of any building would allow, affording uninterrupted views onto the set pieces of merchandise.

Sheffield’s road widening scheme

For Walsh, the opportunity for greater control of the physical development of his business came with the intervention of Sheffield Corporation and the catalyst of road-widening. Their imperative to widen Sheffield’s main thoroughfares enabled a widespread shake-up of the city’s central retail properties. By the 1870s the Town Council were acutely aware that Sheffield’s infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle the volume of traffic flowing through the city centre and in 1875 they put forward an improvement scheme.50 This was to include the widening of Moorhead, Pinstone Street, Fargate, High Street, Church Street, Pinfold Street, Trippet Lane, the upper part of Townhead Street and Blonk Street, as well as improvements to the corner of Nursery Street and the Wicker and the creation of Leopold Street, New Surrey Street, Fitzalan Square and a new street from Moorhead to Pinstone Street. A protracted local inquiry was held, and the Corporation obtained a provisional order with compulsory powers to purchase all necessary land. By negotiation, land forward of the improvement line was either purchased by the Corporation and the involved parties pulled down and rebuilt their properties to the new frontage, or the entire site was purchased and sold on by auction.51 (Figure 8)

Figure 8. Road widening scheme for High Street and Fargate, 1875 (redrawn from
Local Studies Library S(18) L).

As with many other towns of the period, the proposed improvements had a significant impact on the architecture and urban character of Sheffield.52 Detailed survey plans were drawn up by the Corporation’s surveyor and road widths were generally to be increased to sixty feet. This was very much a laissez-faire approach to urban planning, and emphasis was placed on movement through, rather than appearance of, the streets. Taking land mainly from one side, the plans facilitated improved sight lines and general traffic flows. No visual master plan existed, although sales covenants exercised a modicum of building control.53 The quality of redevelopment was mostly determined by individual building commissions, rather than by public initiative. Streets that fared best were those such as Fargate where the majority of buildings on both sides were rebuilt on a scale proportionally better suited to the new road width. From Coles Corner westward, all street frontage was demolished, while on the other side of the road, the junction between Fargate and High Street was set back up to and including the Victoria Buildings, creating ‘a series of new erections which give promise of transforming Fargate into the finest street in town.’54 Elsewhere, with a focus on gaining road width in plan rather than a street in section, there were less satisfactory results.

The High Street

The High Street improvement was of critical importance as it was the principal shopping street and a main thoroughfare, but it was lopsided in its proposed redevelopment. It also proved sufficiently contentious for it to be withdrawn from the scheme in 1875 to prevent delays in all other improvement orders presented to Parliament for approval.55 Opponents objected to the public cost of purchasing expensive central land and street frontages, arguing that that the High Street shopkeepers and building owners would most benefit from central improvements paid for by the public purse.56 Many principal owners and shopkeepers also objected to the compulsory purchase and the ensuing disruption to business.57 For a number of years the transition between Fargate and High Street was marked by a large kink in street frontage, and despite the fact that High Street had ‘just sufficient room for two carts to pass one another’ its widening scheme was held in abeyance until 1892-3 when it was proposed to widen the road to 80 feet.58 The remaining schemes proceeded, and demolition of large swathes of the city centre began around 1880.

The impetus broke the status quo of land tenure and accelerated the professional pursuit of commercialised building development. The traditional tenure structure was one of freehold ownership overlaid by successive land and building leaseholds with chains of under-tenants and occupants. For centuries the land ownership in the central portion of the city had altered little, with three main corporate owners – the Manor, the Church Burgesses and the Town Trustees. There were other private individual freeholders, many of whom had benefited from the inheritance of freehold hereditaments, often with long-standing family connections to the location and an inherited building infrastructure erected by and for their forbears’ use. Long-term, and sometimes remote, landed income led to disinterested ownership, and lessees were more often than not responsible for their own building alterations. Although land was transferred by sale as well as bequeathed, there had been few examples of speculative development on the central streets, either by individuals or commercial organisations. Most property on High Street and Fargate originated either as purpose-built proprietor premises, sometimes later tenant-occupied, or formed improved built-to-let replacement properties for existing tenants.

Encouraging a new street architecture and new departures in the forms and uses of central city shops, the combination of land and development opportunity brought new commercial partnerships and new money to profit from the building boom. With no prior interest in the land and without a direct connection to retailing, independent property speculators built multiple shop units to let to the free market, and they expected good financial returns by resale or through increases in rateable building value.’59 In contrast, the new order of capitalist retailer developed commercial buildings for his own use and the use of his tenants. Of these retailers, the most prominent were the commissioners of the new department stores that consolidated their accretions of expansion into a single purpose-built building.

At the time of the hearing John Walsh had already acquired the freehold of 64-66 High Street and he was beginning to consolidate a larger site on that side of the street. About 100 sq. yds of land were purchased backing onto Norfolk Street at the rear of his shop, and on Mulberry Street (the street adjoining the whole site) Walsh obtained three further sets of premises.60 When it was announced that plans had been drawn up on behalf of a firm of auctioneers for a new premises on the corner of Mulberry and High Street, Walsh entered into an agreement to exchange the land for a site he had recently bought on Fargate.61 A 999 year lease from the Corporation for the ground that they had compulsorily purchased, secured sufficient land to construct the new purpose-built shop and Walsh commissioned drawings from local architects, Flockton and Gibbs. One further transaction was completed. In April 1897 the adjacent George Hotel freehold was sold at auction to Walsh. Architects’ plans from the same year indicate that a new owner was developing the site – the former proprietor of the Clarence Hotel, 54 High Street, lately absorbed into Walsh’s premises.62 The south side premises were demolished, and temporary shops erected for continued trading. Built in sections to minimise disruption to the business, the new building was opened fully in 1899.63

The purpose built department store

As the largest single block of buildings erected on the street, Walsh’s new store was reported in The Builder to cost in excess of £61,000. Comprising three storeys of sales space (including basement level) and upper floors divided between two blocks, the department store occupied a site on the corner of Mulberry Street and High Street, and was accessible to the rear from Norfolk Street. Under construction by 1896, and designed by Flockton and Gibbs, it contained 3½ acres of floor space and had frontages onto each thoroughfare of 200ft and 172ft respectively.64 It was five storeys high plus attic, and included accommodation for 120 assistants. The building was a hybrid construction, with the upper storeys styled as ‘French Renaissance’ and dressed with Huddersfield stone – in appearance like a conventional masonry system. The lower storeys, with their near continuous run of glass and timber show windows, were devoid of internal walls, deploying instead a post and beam construction with cast iron columns, steel beams, and proprietary ‘Stuart’s Granolithic’ concrete floors.65 According to a local paper, the shop was to incorporate a thousand tons of steel – the largest order of its kind to come from Sheffield – to be manufactured in Sheffield at Albion Works.66 (Figure 9)

Figure 9. Axonometric reconstruction of Walsh’s department
store (by the author).

Organisation and form

The requirements of the departmental sales spaces dominated building form at ground and first floor levels. An area 150ft wide and 200ft long, the ground floor was divided into six sales shops, each 25ft wide, extending back the length of the shop, and defined by their long counters and shelving. These could be circulated around longitudinally and transversely, since the column grid caused no obstruction to counters or passages. A hydraulic lift and main staircase at the front of the store led down to a basement sales floor and up to first floor showrooms. Secondary public staircases were located to rear and side of the shop floor. The first floor show rooms also extended back the full length of the store, punctured by seven voids that admitted daylight to the ground floor. Areas of glazed roof lighting above the mid-portion of the store provided natural light to every counter below, each positioned to deliver full daylight onto the goods being shown to customers. The resulting retail space was both orderly and dramatic. Affording views throughout the whole of the store, the galleries allowed a benign overseeing of shop work down below, whilst providing desirable environmental conditions for that work. The spacing and rigour of the counters also enabled staff to operate efficiently.67 The store recognised that ‘…it was eminently desirable that it should be housed under one roof, from the point of view of its control, and even more important than this to facilitate the giving of a more efficient service to customers’.68 (Figure 10)

To the rear of the shop the sales spaces gave way to the core area of the department store: a four-storey block that effected the distribution and management of goods and employees. Goods access was from Norfolk Street into a roof-glazed yard. A stair and an external goods hoist took incoming parcels down to a top-lit cellar-level receiving room where goods were unpacked, checked and sorted. Goods required on the sales floors straight away were hoisted back up to the appropriate department and the rest stored in the basement warehouse, located underneath the rear portion of the ground floor sales shops. The basement also contained the firm’s safe. Directly above the receiving room was the despatch room. Here assistants left their parcels for distribution to customers, and each package was received and checked in at the front counter. This had a bulkhead on three sides, and parcels were sorted for delivery routes then pushed through one of six hatches onto the landing stage outside in the yard. Walsh operated a fleet of removal and despatch vehicles that by 1925 numbered forty-six vehicles and covered 650 square miles of territory per week.69 The counting house was above at first floor. With glazed windows looking onto the shop floor, it was the locus of control and was presumably sub-divided into offices for the various clerks, administrators and store management. The second floor extended a considerable floor area of workroom space.

Figure 10. Walsh’s department store: Ground floor plan (redrawn from
Sheffield Archive CA 206 02649).

The workroom block, where many goods were finished and personalised in the department store tradition, comprised two floors and was serviced by a staircase from the goods yard.70 Situated over the back portion of the sales floor, its mass was broken by two light wells illuminating the shop floor below. With windows in every perimeter wall, the workrooms devoted to millinery, tailoring, dressmaking and furniture polishing, were well-lit. A roof-top walkway enabled these workers access to the accommodation at the front of the building. This accommodation block determined the rhythm of the department store’s main elevation and two storey Corinthian pilasters marked the communal staff areas and the first floor of assistants’ bedrooms above. A second floor of assistants’ rooms and the attic space were set back and lit by two tiers of dormer windows within the mansard roof. The accommodation was clearly segregated.

From the lower end of High Street, at the front of the shop, a separate entrance and stair for female assistants led up to the second floor, to a cloakroom, reading room and parlour, and to the female assistants’ rooms on the floor above. From Mulberry Street a second stair led to male communal rooms, including a reading room and a smoking and billiards room on the second floor. The staff dining room and kitchen also at second floor were reached from this house stair. The top floor of accommodation was allotted to the male assistants and bedroom arrangements exhibited a clearly defined hierarchy. Some rooms were shared and others were single, and there were far fewer single rooms for female assistants, presumably reflecting their low status within the store. Only rooms at the front had fireplaces, and while each room had a window, one third of these looked onto a light well that ran most of the length of the block, accessed from an internal corridor. These rooms were altogether more basic in character. There were also rooms for a house manager, manageress and matron. (Figure 11)

The ornate appearance of the accommodation block contrasted with the retail floors below. Supported on columns aligned with the stone facade, the block was effectively set in from the store’s shopfront. As opposed to the neo-classical orthodoxy above, the façade of the lower floors of the building comprised a two-storey display cabinet that wrapped around the entirety of the street frontage attempting to de-materialise its presence in favour of the material goods offered for sale. For the 372 ft frontage only glazing bars provided obstruction for the viewer.71 The shop window’s importance in the overall design is made clear in its relationship to the street that also informed the structure of the store behind, its geometries picking up the lines of the streets rather than adopting an orthogonal system.

Given the importance of creating an efficient environment for the scale of retailing conducted by John Walsh, the new building was clearly to become more than the machinery of selling. Its presence on the street, and the scale and ambience of the store interior helped create a new shopping experience in Sheffield. If the building type had developed from rationalised systems for the accounting and distribution of goods, and as a workplace and home for an enormous workforce, it offered more than an efficient locus for exchange. It articulated a new relationship with a world of goods. Since identification between product and consumer were mediated through the building form, the store combined both the prosaic and the theatrical, as an efficient structured workplace that reflected its complex commercial organisation, and simultaneously a ‘staged setting’ displaying a cultural collage of goods from around the globe on a scale not previously seen in the city.

A commodity setting

Figure 11. Walsh’s department store: second floor plan (redrawn from
Sheffield Archive CA 206 02649).

Perhaps unintentionally, the department store changed the culture of shopping. The concentration of commodities into vast premises made possible a ‘society of the spectacular’, and the setting for the display of this wealth of goods undoubtedly influenced the actions of the consuming public.72 As one female critic bemoaned:

‘What is shopping in these days [1895], but an unsuccessful struggle against overwhelming temptations? We go to purchase something we want; but when we get to the shop there are so many more things that we never thought of till they presented their obtrusive fascinations on every side. We look for a ribbon, a flower, a chiffon of some sort or other, and we find ourselves in a Paradise of ribbons, flowers, and chiffons, without which our lives become impossible, and our gown unwearable.’73

As building type, the department store’s presence was felt both on the street and as an interior. Chaney suggests that due to their scale ‘the stores became attractions for visitors to the cities… and had the same sort of cultural resonance as railway stations and other festival sites.’74 Transcending the mechanics of retailing, the spatial experience of shopping within the department store helped define its ongoing economic strategy, contributing to the showmanship and sales gloss of the retail business.

The basic strategy remained to increase sales by encouraging more frequent customer visits and by appealing to a larger geographic area of population. Careful advertising, using the image of the department store and making the building synonymous with its business reputation, enhanced store recognition. Department stores spent more on advertising in relation to turnover than any other retailer in the 1930s.75 As Jefferys explains, ‘department stores continued to stand out from the retailers in their use of the whole of a building for trading purposes and not merely the section fronting on the road’.76 Extending this use to resonate with a cultural appeal was a continuation of the same agenda, so much so that ‘the department stores redefined the traditional bourgeois ideals of respectability and comfort… …symbolic culture was fused with material culture, a nd values and ideals were fused with the actual purchase of commodities’.77

Promoting leisure

‘Leisurization of shopping’ came with department stores’ interest in service, limited not only to courtesy and deference but also to comfort and convenience.78 This was evident at both Walsh’s and Cockaynes’. Around 1900 at John Walsh’s, in addition to over thirty departments ranging from Silks, Millinery and Household Linen to Ironmongery, Cabinet Furniture and Oriental Goods, the store advertised at first floor a ladies’ writing room, cloakroom and lavatories. A restaurant serving coffee throughout the day was also provided and to create a genteel environment, the building was fitted with thick carpets, mahogany counters and brass fixtures.79 Well-appointed and well lit, the interior contributed to the aim of encouraging shoppers to remain as long as possible.

Similarly giving over valuable selling space, Cockayne’s in 1919 were advertising a new palm lounge and restaurant that replaced their earlier tearoom of 1898. Located on the top floor, the building had been structurally altered to create vistas through three floors and enable the visitor to glimpse their various different departments. Billed as ‘Sheffield’s leading restaurant’ it offered ‘elegant and efficien t service’ and Cockaynes’ Orchestra played there daily between 3.45 and 5.45pm.80 Store publicity stated that ‘it would have been regarded years ago as a most unusual adjunct to a drapery business; at the present day its absence would be more likely to provoke comment, so usual has it become for large stores to conduct a catering department.’81 The store ambience was persuasive of understated luxury and style with soft carpeting, parquet flooring, mahogany counters and glass display cabinets. There was also a public phone, a Ladies’ lounge and retiring room, and a mail order service that provided a specially trained personal shopper ‘instructed to select all goods from the customer’s point of view and give the closest attention to all details’.82 Another in-store service was a post office in the basement. This service culture permeated the entire business of both stores, alluding to the grandeur of the privileged, and both stores aimed to provide, especially for women, a middle class retreat within the city that had previously been lacking.

Inside John Walsh’s ‘there were two floorwalkers, in tails and striped trousers, and page boys with white gloves threaded through their epaulettes’.83 The staff’s black suits or black dresses with white collars were inspected daily by the management. At Cockaynes, the store was sufficiently concerned for its carriage trade to raise a petition to prevent the tram’s arrival in Angel Street lest it prevented vehicles waiting outside their doors.84 Despite their imposing scale and the reality of customer volume and sales, walking into the department store to be greeted by the doorman and escorted by shop-walkers, each customer was encouraged to participate in a personalised experience of the building and to take ownership of the space. This was some way removed from the undercutting tactics that originated departmentalisation and volume sales, and more akin to the continuing service-led tradition of the small high-class retailer.

Symbolic value

As the John Walsh’s publicity literature shows, the building quickly became a three-dimensional advertisement and a strategic part of a campaign for sales, resonating with a particular status and identity while maintaining a unique sense of place. The building had recognisable symbolic value as an urban icon and as an urbane identifier of the city’s supremacy over its hinterlands.85 This ready identification of the building with the business was implicit in the continued development of a retail strategy that reinforced service in a distinctive setting. A product of the infrastructural costs of procuring and creating a building of this scale, further economic growth was unlikely to emanate from continued expansion in shop size. Instead, by defining the physical boundaries of the business, change came from within, in the development of improved services to further entice the customer and to make shopping more pleasurable, enjoyable and time-consuming.86

However these were first and foremost a business premises. Constrained by specific parameters of cost and profitability and not in itself a monument to shopping, Walsh’s store was continually malleable in its accommodation of new departments and new ideas. Promoting novelty, trying new sales displays and events, and jettisoning ideas or lines that were not economic the department store’s business strategy was consistent. In consequence the interior was the stage for changing tableaux of commodities – transient and mutable and increasingly contrasting with the store’s external image of institutional solidity and permanence.

Continuity and change

To make way for new showrooms and more customer facilities, the by then out-dated living-in accommodation was removed before 1925 and the front section of the store gutted.87 Workrooms also gave way to additional display space. The store brochure captures its then departmental organisation. The basement housed the electrical, decorating and other associated departments while the majority of departments were located on the ground floor. These included various branches of drapery and mercery, perfumery, household goods, hats and a men’s wear and outfitting department including ‘a magnificent Gentlemen’s Hairdressing and Toilet Saloon with the very latest improvements and fittings’. The first floor accommodated fashion salons for ladies’ wear, baby wear, needlework and other fancy goods departments and the Post Order Service for home delivery. The second floor housed the cabinet furniture showrooms but was mostly given over to a Restaurant and Customer Lounge, complete with daily orchestral music (where weekly tea dances and monthly dinner dances were later held), a Gentlemen’s smoke room and the Ladies’ and Children’s Hairdressing departments.88 There were further showrooms on the floor above, including ‘Model Furnished Rooms’. The top two floors remained private, fitted out with kitchens and staff dining and rest rooms.

Unlike our contemporary shopping mall, the department store was not constructed as a themed stage set – the displayed goods themselves provided a sufficient phantasmagoria. Nevertheless, the introduction of internalised specimen room sets at Walsh’s within the wider store emphasised the subservience of the shop interior to the greater art of salesmanship. The Sheffield store was continually re-dressed and re-fitted, and national events and other anniversaries assimilated for the benefit of the business. In these theatres of display and performance, it was the temporary that was celebrated. For Walsh’s fiftieth year of trading, promotional literature described:

‘The store, both outside and in, will be dressed in festive garb. Window Displays will show Tableaux of Fashions covering the passed fifty years, and SPECIAL JUBILEE OFFERS, each one of which will show a substantial saving of money, will be made in all departments.’89

As ever, moving the business forward took priority over the shop architecture. Interiorisation – a world within the store – and the shift from retail mechanics to retail theatre contrasted with the seeming permanence of the department store externally and its institutional presence – a message the stores were keen to publicise with historical accounts of their business foundations and their staff’s longevity service records.90 Intended as a tool in the service of selling goods, the example of John Walsh’s store suggests that the building was not something to be venerated in its own right: more appropriately it was always the bridesmaid to the world of goods housed within and to negate obsolescence it had to be continually adaptable to the latest techniques and practices in the retailing of those goods.

A tradition of change

Making an architecture that was integral to the development of sales was one model of retailing that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. A second model, evident in the new commercial mixed developments, represented an opposing trend concerned with the concentration of retail identity within a branded business. Here the architecture of the shop building mattered less than its signage and fittings. Both types were evident in the widespread rebuilding of Sheffield’s central streets which reflected the increasing variety of retailing choice that had evolved nationally in English city centres; demanding different types of shop accommodation and offering a choice of shopping experience. Both models are also the antecedents of twentieth and twenty-first century retail building types where, within the confines of dedicated sales environments the importance of advertising and image, of setting and product, is well understood.

Retail identity is a sophisticated industry: predicated on fashion, freshness and a cyclical updating it nevertheless requires strong links with its particular business heritage. A changing veneer of style on a backbone of retail expertise, the shop fit-out is one weapon in retail’s armoury. The impermanence of both shop and interior, as exemplified in the preceding case study, is encouraged or constrained by the wider implications of running an effective retail business. Here the dual issues of location and land economy figure largely. As John Walsh recognised, the importance of his business location was a significant factor in its profitability and likewise the scale of investment in the new street plot and the rigidity of it boundaries informed the ongoing business. The seeming permanence of its establishment disguised structural differences emerging within the store and the retail trade more generally over time and this principle is of ongoing social and spatial significance.

The pattern of plots created in the late nineteenth century is still legible in the subsequent architectural renewal of the street façade in Sheffield. Showing how the current familiar form of High Street and Fargate was constructed through the consolidation of land ownership, and the role that local government intervention played in facilitating this, is insightful because it exposes the relationship between land economy and wholesale urban renewal. Given the value we place culturally on our urban heritage and identity, its fragility or persistence of form is continually tested in the face of commercial pressures. The extent to which the form of the High Street no longer suits the retail requirements of the city centre, inevitably provides the impetus for either change of form or change of use. This in turn challenges both our perception of continuity and the illusion of ownership of the public realm.


Published sources

Adburgham, Alison, Shops and Shopkeeping 1800-1914: Where and in what manner the well-dressed Englishwoman bought her clothes, George Allen and Unwin, London 1964
Bedwell, R., ‘Forty-two years of change’, Sheffield Spectator, Vol. 9, no. 68, 1970.
The British Architect, Aug 6, 1897, p. 93, ‘New Buildings for Mr John Walsh’
Burnett, John, A History of the Cost of Living, Penguin, London, 1969
Chaney, D., ‘The Department Store as a Cultural Form’, Theory, Culture and Society, Vol 1, No. 3, pp. 22-31
Crossick, D.& Haupt, H-G., (eds.), Shopkeepers and Master Artisans in Nineteenth Century Europe, Methuen, London, 1984
Gatty, Rev. Alfred (ed.), Hallamshire: The History and Topography of the Parish of Sheffield in the County of York, (A new and enlarged edition), Pawson and Brailsford, Sheffield. 1869
Girouard, Mark, The English Town, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1990
Hobsbawm, E., The Age of Capital 1848-1875, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975
Holland, G C., The Vital Statistics of Sheffield, London and Sheffield, 1843
Hosgood, C. P., ‘Mercantile monasteries: Shops, shop assistants and shop life in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ in Journal of British Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3, July 1999, pp. 322-352
Jefferys, J. B., Retail Trading in Britain 1850-1950: A study of trends in retailing with special reference to the development of Co-operative, multiple shop and department store methods of retailing, Cambridge University Press, 1954
Jeune, M., ‘The Ethics of Shopping’ in The Fortnightly Review, vol. 57, January to June, 1895, pp. 123-132
Laermans, R., ‘Learning to consume: Early department stores and the shaping of the modern consumer culture’ Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 79-102, 1993
Lanchester, H V., ‘The Design and Architectural Treatment of the Shop’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, LXI, 1913, pp. 577-89.
Leader, Robert E., Reminiscences of Old Sheffield: Its Streets and People, Leader and Sons, Independent Office, Sheffield, 1875
Miller, Michael B., The Bon Marche: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1981
Richards, Thomas, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle,1851- 1914, Verso, London and New York, 1991
Shaw, Gareth, ‘Retail Patterns in the Victorian City’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 1979, pp. 278-91
The Sheffield and Rotherham Red Book and Almanac, Pawson and Brailsford, Sheffield, various years beginning 1863.
Stainton, J. H., Past Chapters in Sheffield History, W C Leng and Co., Sheffield, 1918
Turton, A., ‘Rackhams spans the century’, Sheffield Topic, April 1985, pp. 36-408
Various Trade Directories and Listings for Sheffield held at Sheffield Local Studies Library and Sheffield City Archive8
Zola, E., The Ladies’ Paradise, translated with an introduction by Brian Nelson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 19958

Archived Sources

Sheffield City Archive

Fairbanks Collection

MB 406, Spending on street improvements in Sheffield between 1813 and 1837
SheS 580S Plan of the late Thomas Cliff’s Premises on High Street as now divided into Lots for Sales, April 1829


CA 206 02649, Plans and sections of John Walsh’s new store, 1896
CA 206 03376, High street, ‘The George’, 1897
CA 543 (1, 3, 4, 5, 8), Street Improvements, 1875
MD 2682-2685, Deeds relating to property on the north side of High Street, occupied by John Walsh
MD 6407, High Street: Lease for a Shop, R & G Gray and Co.
SYCRO 216/Z18/4, Postcard of John Walsh’s, 1905
SYCRO 396/B1/1, Publicity brochure: John Walsh, The Fiftieth Milestone, 1925
SYCRO 492/B, Records of the department store of Schofields (Yorkshire Ltd.) Angel Street, formerly T. B. and W. Cockayne Ltd., 1821-1982
SYCRO 674/B1, Goad Fire Insurance Plans

Sheffield Local Studies Library


The House of Cockayne, Cockayne’s Century of Public Service: 1929, Better than ever, 1929
M. P. 165S, High Street Widening Scheme
Local Newspaper Cuttings Collection

Sale plans

Fargate: 1888, July 25, Lot 1

Miscellaneous Maps and Plans

S 18 L, S. C. C. Highways Street Improvements, 1875
S (20) 2L, Plan of Freehold Property belonging to William Younge, 1847
S (20) 5-10 L, Shop plans and sections drawn in respect of a dispute between Sheffield Corporation and John Walsh, 1895

  1. Jefferys, Retail Trading in Britain 1850-1950, is the established economic history of retailing.
  2. See for example Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital and Richards Commodity Culture
  3. A Sheffield shop girl at the turn of the twentieth century was paid 8 shillings a week plus bed and board, working out at just over £20 a year, while an average working class man’s annual wage was around £50 Sheffield shop adverts from the mid nineteenth century price men’s coats starting at 21 shillings (i.e. just over a pound) and rising to 20 guineas (£21-0-0, and equivalent to the shop girl’s wages for a year). Sheffield Archive, SYCRO 396/B1/1; White, Directory of Sheffield, 1852
  4. Adburgham, Chapter XI
  5. op. cit., Adburgham, Chapter XII
  6. See typical drapers ads
  7. Leader, Reminiscences of Sheffield, p. 267
  8. ibid.
  9. Holland, The Vital Statistics of Sheffield, p. 10
  10. Crossick, The Lower Middle Class in Britain, ‘The small shopkeeper in industrial and market towns’. The term ‘shopocracy’ is used by Thea Vigne and Alun Howkins, p. 184.
  11. Gatty, Hallamshire, p. 20. Note that these returns were for the Township of Sheffield including Sheffield Park.
  12. Sheffield Archive, Fairbanks Collection MB 406
  13. Shaw, ‘Retail Patterns in the Victorian City’, p. 289
  14. Local Studies Library, Newspaper Cuttings relating to Sheffield, Vol. 2, (942.74SF) ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  15. Burnett, A History of the Cost of Living, p. 233 and p. 301
  16. Turton, ‘Rackhams spans the century’, p.36
  17. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day
  18. op. cit., Turton, p. 36
  19. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  20. ibid.
  21. op. cit., Turton, p. 36
  22. Sheffield Archive, MD 2683-2. In 1891 the lease for the north side, 37-45 High Street, was renegotiated. The plot stretched from the front of High Street to the Hartshead at the rear. The Directory for Sheffield of 1893 lists Walsh at nos. 54-62 High Street on the south side.
  23. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  24. ibid.
  25. SYCRO 674/B1 Goad Insurance Plan
  26. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  27. op. cit., Sheffield Archive, SYCRO, 396/B1/1, John Walsh, The Fiftieth Milestone, 1925
  28. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  29. ibid.
  30. Local Studies Library, S (20) 5-10 L, Shop plans and sections drawn in respect of a dispute between Sheffield Corporation and John Walsh, 1895
  31. Local Studies Library, Newspaper Cuttings relating to Sheffield, Vol. 2, (942.74SF) ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’ and ‘Mr John Walsh’s Arbitration: Second day’s proceedings’
  32. op. cit., Local Studies Library, S (20) 5-10 L
  33. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  34. Local Studies Library, Newspaper Cuttings relating to Sheffield, Vol. 2, (942.74SF) ‘The Widening of Hovey’s Corner’
  35. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh’s Arbitration: Second day’s proceedings’
  36. ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh and the Corporation: First day’
  39. op. cit., Newspaper cuttings, ‘Mr John Walsh’s Arbitration: Second day’s proceedings’
  40. Sheffield Archive, MD 2682-1
  41. Zola, E., The Ladies’ Paradise, is a good example of contemporary concern over the scale and economic implications for small shopkeepers of the department store.
  42. Sheffield Archive, SYCRO 492/B18/1.
  43. Sheffield Archive, SYCRO 492/B2/2-43 Directors’ Reports
  44. ibid. The directors’ reports of 1901 and 1902 bemoan losses in several departments put down to bad buying and stock-keeping and state that the Chairman will more closely supervise management of the cabinet department. In 1899, the carpet department manager was let go because ‘the management of the Dept had for some time been very unsatisfactory, preventing it contributing to the general success of the Concern’.
  45. op. cit., Sheffield Archive, SYCRO 396/B1/1, ‘The Fiftieth Milestone’, 1925
  46. op. cit., SYCRO 492/B18/1
  47. Hosgood, ‘Mercantile monasteries: Shops, shop assistants and shop life in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain’, p. 338
  48. Bedwell, ‘Forty-two years of change’. As well as sitting rooms for each sex complete with a billiards table and a piano, Cockaynes held an Annual House Ball in the store’s restaurant. The store also boasted two football, two cricket and three snooker teams, a tennis club and a swimming club, all subsidised by the firm, and the assistants elected an entertainments secretary. Miller, The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, p. 101-112. The Bon Marché ran English language, music and fencing lessons, hired a company doctor, and offered employees savings accounts.
  49. Lanchester, ‘The Design and Architectural Treatment of the Shop’, p. 589
  50. Sheffield Archive, CA 543 (1) Borough of Sheffield, Report of the Improvement Committee
  51. Examples of both approaches can be found on High Street and Fargate.
  52. See Girouard, The English Town, Chapter 12 ‘The High Street’.
  53. Local Studies Library, Sale Plan, 25 July 1888, Borough of Sheffield: Eleventh sale of surplus lands
  54. The Sheffield and Rotherham Red Book and Almanac, 1880, p. 95
  55. The Sheffield and Rotherham Red Book and Almanac, 1895, pp. 177-182.
  56. Local Studies Library, Miscellaneous Papers 165S, High Street Widening Scheme.
  57. Sheffield Archive, CA 543 (8)
  58. Stainton, Past Chapters in Sheffield History, pp. 20-21
  59. Local Studies Library, Newspaper Cuttings related to Sheffield , Vol. 2, 942.74SF, dated July 1894, reporting a proposed development on Pinstone Street.
  60. op. cit., John Walsh, The Fiftieth Milestone, 1925.
  61. op.cit., Local Studies Library, Newspaper Cuttings relating to Sheffield, Vol. 2, (942.74SF): see for more detail about period poperty development.
  62. Sheffield Archive, CA 206 03376, The George, High Street, 1897
  63. op. cit., Local Studies Library, Newspaper Cuttings relating to Sheffield, Vol. 2, (942.74SF)
  64. The British Architect, August 6, 1897, p. 93
  65. ibid.
  66. Local Studies Library, Newscuttings related to Sheffield, Vol. 2, 942.74SF
  67. Sheffield Archive, CA 206 02649
  68. op. cit., SYCRO 396/B1/1, ‘The Fiftieth Milestone’, 1925
  69. ibid.
  70. ibid. By 1925 John Walsh Ltd. employed over six hundred staff, many of whom were not sales staff.
  71. op. cit., The British Architect
  72. Chaney, ‘The Department Store as a Cultural Form’, p.24
  73. M Jeune, ‘The Ethics of Shopping’, 1895, p. 124
  74. op. cit., Chaney, p. 25
  75. op. cit., Jefferys, p. 59
  76. ibid.
  77. Laermans, ‘Learning to consume’, p. 97
  78. ibid., p. 88
  79. op. cit., Turton, ‘Rackhams spans the century’, p. 37
  80. Local Studies Library, L. S. 658.65, House of Cockayne, 1929
  81. ibid.
  82. SYCRO 492/B14/1
  83. op. cit., Turton, p. 38
  84. SYCRO 492/B2/2-43
  85. See for example, SYCRO 396/B1/1, ‘The Fiftieth Milestone’, 1925.
  86. op. cit., Jefferys, p. 59
  87. op. cit., SYCRO 396/B1/1, ‘The Fiftieth Milestone’, 1925
  88. ibid. See also Turton, pp. 40-41
  89. op. cit., SYCRO 396/B1/1, Cover letter accompanying ‘The Fiftieth Milestone’, 1925
  90. See both SYCRO 396/B1/1, ‘The Fiftieth Milestone’, 1925 and SYCRO 492/B14/1, ‘Under five reigns’, 1829-1919.